ANKARA, 18 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - Poultry farmers in Turkey want to cull millions of their egg-laying fowl following a sharp decline in egg consumption after four confirmed deaths because of avian influenza or 'bird flu' in the country.
"We can hardly sell any eggs. People are scared to buy eggs and poultry," Ahmet Sisman, the owner of the Buyuk Sismanlar egg production company, said on Wednesday at his farm housing some 300,000 egg-laying chickens in the Cubuk area, 40 km northeast of the capital Ankara.
With an output of 280,000 eggs a day and stocks accumulating over the past few days, the businessman is clearly worried as the conveyor at his farm continues to carry fresh eggs to the grading and packing machine to add to an already accumulated stock of some 5 million unsold eggs.
"Around four to five days before Bayram [the Muslim holiday of Eid which started on 10 January] the stocks started accruing, then the whole week of Bayram was off," Sisman lamented.
"Our retail customers cannot pay us back, but we have to feed our chickens. We can feed our poultry for the next week or 10 days, but if the situation remains unchanged and nobody buys our eggs, then we won't be able to feed our chickens any more. It is not like just shutting down a manufacturing factory," he complained.
His concerns reflect worries among poultry farmers across the country that they could lose millions of dollars worth of revenue.
"After news of the first human deaths from bird flu in the east of the country, our sales came to a virtual halt. Now we sell only 10 percent of what we used to trade before," Yusuf Zafar Kaya, Vice-President of the Turkish Association of Egg Producers (TAEP), said.
"The consumers are afraid to buy our product because of a lack of awareness. This is despite the fact that eggs and poultry from organised farms do not pose any health threat and all safety measures in the production facilities are strictly followed," he said.
"There have been no cases of bird flu among poultry in professional farms, it is mainly amongst backyard domestic fowl in rural areas, which are exposed to migratory birds. But we are the ones suffering most from this," he repeated.
Indeed, according to TAEP, following an estimated 90 percent drop in egg sales throughout the country, wholesale prices for the product in Ankara alone have plummeted by over 40 percent.
"This being the case, we plan to cull some 25 percent of all the chickens in the country's poultry farms to reduce the production of eggs and offset, at least, some losses," Kaya noted.
But that will prove a challenge. There are some 42 million chickens in Turkey's egg producing farms and TAEP intends to cull around 10 million of them, pending a decision from the government on the amount of compensation for each bird.
"This figure is the approximate number of chickens older than 65 weeks whose productivity is starting to decrease. Before we used to sell them to households and butchers in the eastern regions of the country for a small price, but now we cannot do that because the government has banned all movements of animals in the country," Kaya explained, adding: "We are in a very difficult situation. Our whole production cycle has almost stopped."
With the exception of racehorses, the Turkish agriculture ministry has banned the movement of all animals between the country's 81 provinces, but farmers emphasise that the ultimate solution is to contain the outbreaks and cull all backyard poultry, noting, that public awareness would prove key in this.
Already, the Turkish government reported on Tuesday that over 1 million backyard poultry have been culled in the country's affected provinces.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing lawmakers of his party in parliament on Tuesday, called upon the population to remain calm, reassuring them that everything was being done to contain the crisis, the semi-state Anatolia news agency reported.
Erdogan urged the public not to stop eating chicken and eggs from professional poultry farms, saying the disease was confined to birds raised in the open in rural backyards.
"Many people in the country make their living from raising poultry," he said, adding: "There is no point in causing a sector that employs thousands of people to make losses."
TAEP officials noted that the livelihoods of an estimated 1.5 million people were dependent on poultry egg farms in the country.
But more cases continue to be diagnosed. On Tuesday another case of bird flu was registered in the eastern province of Erzurum, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 21.
Preliminary laboratory test results suggested that a four-year-old boy undergoing medical treatment in Erzurum fell ill after eating chicken in the Dogubeyazit region where four deaths have already occurred. All but two cases of the infection involved children and young adults under 18.
Meanwhile, an international conference in Beijing aimed at raising more than a billion dollars to fight a possible bird flu pandemic - particularly amongst developing countries in Asia - on Wednesday received an unexpectedly generous response from the donor community, CNN reported.
Nations attending the bird flu meeting in the Chinese capital have reportedly pledged US $1.9 billion to fight the disease, exceeding expectations set by the World Bank.
At the start of the conference, the World Bank said at least $1.2 billion was needed over the next three years to avert a possible pandemic.
The report came on the second day of the forum in Beijing, co-hosted by the World Bank, along with China and the European Union (EU), with more than half the world's nations, including health and finance experts, gathering for the event.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's said in a video message to the bird flu conference on Wednesday that the conference came at a crucial time in the world's response to avian flu.
"Recent deaths among human beings, including children, have reminded us, tragically, of the gravity of this threat. The loss of more than 140 million chickens has caused massive hardship to farmers and brought fear to their communities," Annan said.
"At the same time, the virus could ignite the next human flu pandemic...Two months ago, I said we needed to prepare a coordinated international response, reflecting the needs of all nations. Since then, governments and international organisations have agreed on priorities. Countries and communities have started to organise themselves. But we are not yet there," the UN Secretary-General said.
"To be truly prepared, we will need to mount a massive effort - from upgrading veterinary systems and launching vaccination drives, to encouraging change in the ways people coexist with animals," Annan added.
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